by Alison Yaunches
The inaugural edition of whatkidscando.org (July 2001) included a feature story called “Small Towns: Big Dreams,” which documented community revitalization efforts by young people in three rural towns. Five years later, WKCD brings news from one of these towns, Howard, South Dakota. This story appears in the Nov. ’06 edition of Rural Roots, the e-newsletter of the Rural School and Community Trust.
In 1995, educators in Howard, South Dakota received a small grant from the Rural Trust (then the Annenberg Rural Challenge) to design place-based learning curriculum that became a student-led effort to understand community spending and encourage a "buy local" campaign. Retail sales in the community increased 41% that year.
However, other problems--ones typical of America's rural communities--were facing Miner County as well: out-migration of families and the elderly, the "brain drain" of young people, and the abandonment of companies and industry leaving for more economical locales. But the idea that community members could independently affect the vitality of their community and aim toward sustainability was firmly planted in the community's collective outlook.
And so with the aid of the business teacher who started the spending study, Randy Parry, the community started Miner County Community Revitalization (MCCR) and received millions from the Northwest Area Foundation and the South Dakota Community Foundation to explore sustainability and economic vitality.
Modeling what is possible
Today, the county (pop. 2,884)1 is a remarkable model of rural community revitalization efforts. An organic beef farm, a wind turbine maintenance facility (started by a former Howard High School student), new low-cost housing for seniors, a child care center, and manufacturing facilities (including a facility for wind blade manufacturing attracted to the area because of the renewable energy expertise, expected to bring 10-25 jobs to the area) are all signs of community progress. MCCR's concentration on whole-community revitalization goes beyond youth/education to include health care, the elderly, childcare, tourism, and housing.
They have also added a new focus: collaborating and sharing their working models of revitalization efforts with other small rural communities across the country. They created the non-profit Rural Learning Center (RLC) to address what they saw as a missing ingredient in community revitalization projects going on in dozens of isolated communities across the country-connecting other rural communities facing the same odds and challenges and building nationwide, long-lasting relationships to help each other. So far, they have collaborated with over 38 Midwestern communities as they work on developing their own visions about what they would like to be in the future.
"We were deluged with other communities interested in learning more about what we were doing here," says Jim Beddow, Executive Director of the RLC. And so the RLC works on sharing the learning, testing and documenting the best ways to collaborate, and sustaining the inter-community relationships over a long period of time.
In their work with other rural communities nationwide, the RLC pushes for intentional student involvement, according to Beddow. "When we work with other communities, we also try to influence how they look at young people and encourage them to involve youth at the community level," he said.
A New Generation of Youth Involvement
Recently, Parry, now the Executive Director of MCCR, and Beddow took another look at a community partner they had been neglecting in their own community. While youth had been active collaborators in community development since the spending study, the school as a partner had faded from the forefront of the projects. They realized once again that no community can be fully viable without successful schools and student and school input and participation, and so they aimed to spearhead renewed efforts to bring the school and all of its resources back into the process.
Before, according to Beddow, "the energy and change came from the school and drove out into the community. Now we see those two entities on more of a parallel, or concurrent, development. The youth piece has to come from both directions--the school and the community."
Lindsey Karlson is heading up the reconnection between the school and the community development corporation. She says they started the second-generation effort of youth engagement, because, "of the systemic changes still apparent from the first generation of youth involvement--a program that obviously had a real lasting impact on the community. We realized we needed to do it again and make it a broader process and a model for other rural communities."
This year they received a one-year capacity building grant from the federal Department of Health and Human Services for pilot student-led projects in Howard and Corsica, South Dakota. The curriculum focuses on youth as researchers in their communities, building skills in interviewing, surveying, analyzing data, and then presenting their findings. "Place" is just as important this time around, because to accomplish their goals, students will have to look at the community history and perform local research to understand demographics and local business needs.
Students are currently choosing their area of study in each location, performing research and speaking with local people--a step they take because they plan to fully collaborate with the community for the duration of the project. Some considerations so far include organic industry, community housing, and local poverty.
Karlson is closely aligning certain aspects of their work in Corsica with a senior project framework through the South Dakota Department of Education, which seeks to provide capstone experiences for seniors. The capstone's goals are to have students demonstrate not only what they know, but also what they can do with their knowledge. Instead of researching something general, the students in Corsica will focus on researching the issues that affect their community.
Some Corsica students are studying community design. In application this spring, this will mean that they will research the possibility of a housing collaborative in their town and create a vision for the future. As the project progresses, they will present their findings and plans to the community to educate them about what it means and why it's important. Lastly, they will be involved in the process by actually bringing their plans to fruition and working with architects, community developers, and city planners to garner hands-on skills.
MCCR is concerned with sustaining leadership over time, both in the community and the school. While the influence of the initial spending study was embedded deeply in the community and its revitalization efforts, and students did not stop completely their involvement in place-based learning, the schools lost some of the teachers who had initially embraced the curriculum and also suffered from meager school board support.
Consequently, they are tracking their work, putting into place processes and protocols to maintain the sustainability of the project. "Having Lindsey getting back in the school and bringing the youth's ideas back to the process is a really great thing," says Parry. "We have much more support from the school board and the superintendent this time around. We're all working on embracing the philosophy that students and schools are economic engines and change agents in the community."
Tracking Community Leaders
MCCR is all about building rural community leadership, but not from one person or even a handful of people. Beddow and Parry are focusing on bottom-up community visioning, reaching out to the schools, young people, women, and other groups traditionally left out of the process and "connecting all the dots" of the different things going on around the community and school.
And progress is being made. The number of community groups (i.e., local churches, the historical society, the 4-H club, and development corporations) working on the community plan has increased steadily from 33 in 2000 to 89 in 2005. They are also tracking the number of new leaders--defined as someone who is engaged in a leadership position in the community that had not been previously engaged in that way, such as being on a board or leading a community event. The number of new leaders involved in implementing the community plan has averaged at an impressive 36 people per year over the six-year tracking timeframe.
"We've measured things that don't always get measured," says Parry. Besides the number of new leaders and the total number of community groups working on the plan on a yearly basis, they continue to measure communitywide gross sales (at their highest in Miner County's history) and the number of school alumni that stay in or return to the community.
"Out-migration is a crippling issue in rural America, and so we can measure progress by seeing an increase in returning or remaining graduates. If there are jobs and livelihoods that people can return to, they will," says Karlson. On average, since 1990, 27% of graduates chose to keep calling Miner County home, though the number has fluctuated from year-to-year from a low of 11.1% for 1993 graduates to a high of 42.9% for 1999 graduates.2
Another important measure of their success is the amount of community transfer payments. Transfer payments are money given by the government to its citizens, with no goods or services expected in return, such as social security, unemployment, and public assistance programs like Medicaid. If seniors leave the community for affordable housing elsewhere, for instance, the community loses the positive social benefits of a multi-generational community, as well as the investment of their transfer payments.
"The students taught the community about transfer payments, and that significantly changed the way local leadership put money into other things, such as senior housing," said Parry. Students focused on what the loss of seniors to other communities with senior amenities would mean to Miner County: loss of human and social capital, as well as financial capital. Enter Whispering Winds, an assisted living apartment-style residence located downtown that the community recently invested in and helped to build. This, and other new housing options for seniors and new families, has been a key to increasing community wealth. Miner County's tracking of transfer payments has seen a 34% increase in payments to individuals in the past 13 years and a 37% increase in payments to non-profit organizations.
Expansion from Small Beginnings
Ten years after that initial small grant from us, Miner County has morphed from a rural community with heart to one with the health to back it up. They have harnessed the community's power to help save their small town (while also harnessing the power of the wind for their economic vitality). Most importantly, they have recognized that returning to where it all started--the school--and garnering youth involvement at all levels is one of their most important sustainability measures.
"Other people are starting to see the possibilities of the school and understanding that they have to change their ways of thinking in order to make communities viable in the future. We came out of Annenberg and worked to where we are now…it's quite an expansion," said Parry.
1 According to the 2000 Census, down from the 1990's Census of 3,272. The 2010 Census will be the first true measure of Miner County's revitalization efforts, since they really did not start until 1999.
2 These kinds of numbers are rarely tracked, so it is impossible to compare what the percentages were before or the residential rates of other South Dakota counties. Though the span from 1993 to 1999 increased, the percentage of graduating students from the 2000 class went down to 22.5%, and other year's rates have been in the 20s.
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“There’s a radical—and wonderful—new idea here… that all children could and should be inventors of their own theories, critics of other people’s ideas, analyzers of evidence, and makers of their own personal marks on the world.”
– Deborah Meier, educator